Saturday, July 30, 2022

3599. James Lovelock Dies at 103

Pearce Wright and Jim Bradford, The Guardian, July 27, 2022

James Lovelock

The scientist James Lovelock’s discoveries had an immense influence on our understanding of the global impact of humankind, and on the search for extraterrestrial life. A vigorous writer and speaker, he became a hero to the green movement, although he was one of its most formidable critics.

His research highlighted some of the issues that became the most intense environmental concerns of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, among them the insidious spread through the living world of industrial pollutants; the destruction of the ozone layer; and the potential menace of global heating. He supported nuclear power and defended the chemical industries – and his warnings took an increasingly apocalyptic note.

The scientist James Lovelock’s discoveries had an immense influence on our understanding of the global impact of humankind, and on the search for extraterrestrial life. A vigorous writer and speaker, he became a hero to the green movement, although he was one of its most formidable critics.

“The planet we live on has merely to shrug to take some fraction of a million people to their deaths,” Lovelock wrote in 2006. “But this is nothing compared with what may soon happen; we are now so abusing the Earth that it may rise and move back into the hot state it was in 55m years ago, and if it does, most of us, and our descendants, will die.” In a speech to the Royal Society, he described the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as “the scariest official document I have ever read”.

Lovelock, who has died on his 103rd birthday, was best known through the Gaia theory, a controversial idea that he proposed in the 1960s and developed with the US biologist Lynn Margulis in the 70s. They suggested a radically different way of looking at the evolution of life. Their proposition challenged the view of Earth as just a lump of rock, a passive host to millions of species of plants and animals that simply adapted to their environment. Gaia held that those countless millions of organisms not only competed, but also cooperated to maintain an environment in which life could be sustained: a process of co-evolution.

It was a conjecture that jarred with many scholars, such as Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, who regarded the notion as a profound heresy against Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection anchored in the thesis of survival of the fittest.

Gaia was an instant inspiration for the green movement; but it took years to get overt recognition from the scientific establishment. That came in 1988 when the American Geophysical Union held a meeting in San Diego, California, that drew leading physicists, biologists and climatologists to weigh the evidence for Gaia and debate its implications for the future of science.

In 2001, more than 1,000 scientists met in Amsterdam to declare that the planet “behaves as a single self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components”. In effect, Lovelock and Margulis had won the day: the details could be debated, but the broad argument was settled.

Early in his career, Lovelock devised techniques to freeze and then re-animate cell tissue, and even whole animals such as hamsters. Just for fun, in 1954, he used microwave radiation from a continuous wave magnetron to cook a potato. “It may have been the first working microwave oven used to cook food that was then eaten,” he wrote. “If it was, then I did invent it.”

He worked with the actors Leo McKern and Joan Greenwood on a BBC drama, The Critical Point (1957), about the experimental freezing of a human, and used a home-made electronic sound generator to simulate the failing breath, the fading heartbeat and the death rattle of an actor. He was later told that his tape inspired the BBC to found its pioneering radiophonic workshop.

He designed new types of extraordinarily sensitive instruments that could detect the presence of unimaginably tiny concentrations of man-made chemicals in gases. When they were used to study the chemistry of the atmosphere they pointed the finger at the spread of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as the source of destruction of the ozone layer. Similarly, they revealed the accumulation of residues of pesticides in the tissues of virtually all living creatures, from penguins in Antarctica to mothers’ milk in Europe and the US.

Throughout his life he went on delivering inventive ideas. With Chris Rapley, then director of the Science Museum in London, Lovelock proposed in the journal Nature in 2007 a way by which humans could churn the world’s oceans to stimulate algal growth, draw down extra carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, increase the formation of sunlight-reflecting clouds and thus damp down global heating.

Lovelock was born in Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire, but was brought up in Brixton, south London, where his parents, Tom and Nellie, ran a shop selling picture frames. He was educated at the local grammar, the Strand school. At an early age, he discovered the public library, which he said fired a fascination with science. By comparison, he found science lessons at school dull.

In the unfettered freedom of the library, he soaked up information with equal relish from science fiction or any science textbook that caught his interest, on astronomy, natural history, biology, physics and chemistry. Lovelock’s practical flair was also given free rein. He recalled inventing a gadget as a schoolboy, an airspeed indicator that he held out of the window during train journeys.

His parents could not support their son at university, so Lovelock got a job as a laboratory technician in industry, and studied for a BSc at evening classes. In 1940 he joined the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill, where he stayed for 20 years. Then a Quaker, he was a conscientious objector during the second world war.

While at the NIMR, he took a PhD in biomedical science and made the most important of his inventions, the electron capture detector. It was a matchbox size device that could detect and measure tiny traces of toxic chemicals. Like many great inventors Lovelock was not really a team player. He craved independence. The electron capture detector earned him enough money to get that freedom, and in later years he liked to describe himself as an “independent scientist since 1964”.

“Any artist or novelist would understand,” he wrote in his autobiography, Homage to Gaia (2000), “some of us do not produce their best when directed.”

Lovelock’s transition to independence began when he left the NIMR in 1961 to work for Nasa, the US space agency. He was invited to design experiments for the Surveyor series of unmanned spacecraft that were to examine the surface of the moon before the US government would authorise a lunar landing attempt by the Apollo astronauts.

He moved from the moon project to work with Nasa’s interplanetary exploration team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California, on ideas for looking for signs of life on Mars. He was surprised at the shortage of suggestions from the universities and research institutes to a request from Nasa for proposals to study the biological aspects of the Red Planet.

He attributed the lack of interest to an obsession with molecular biology and genetic evolution triggered by the stunning discovery by Francis Crick and James Watson of how the genetic code was carried by DNA. Lovelock was disappointed in the shift in the focus of research in biology from the big picture to the small. The study of life concentrated more on a closer examination of molecules and atoms rather than on whole organisms, with the implication that the whole was never more than the sum of its parts and scientists could figure out how organisms worked by taking them to pieces.

Lovelock’s experiments to look for signs of life on Mars were conceived quite differently, through a holistic approach rather than a reductionist one; and his approach had an important influence in the thinking he and Margulis shared in establishing the principles of the Gaia theory.

Nasa plans to look for evidence of extraterrestrial life were targeted initially on Earth’s neighbouring planets, Venus and Mars. Lovelock predicted from a study of the chemical composition of their atmospheres that both Mars and Venus would be lifeless. Then, with a bit of pure lateral thinking, he wondered how Earth might appear to an extraterrestrial intelligence.

He pursued the idea in a conversation with Dian Hitchcock, a colleague at JPL, about why there were such extreme differences between the atmosphere of Earth and those of Mars and Venus. He said the conclusion he reached was probably the moment Gaia was born.

The atmospheres of both Mars and Venus comprised over 95% carbon dioxide, with small amounts of nitrogen, oxygen and other gases. In contrast, the Earth’s atmosphere was 77% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, with traces of carbon dioxide and other gases. He looked for an explanation as to what made the Earth’s atmosphere so different, and unique in our solar system. The evidence that the sun’s energy had increased 30% during the three and a half billion years life had existed on the planet, and yet the Earth’s surface temperature had remained constant, particularly puzzled him.

Lovelock reckoned that, according to standard physics, the planet’s surface should have boiled with the increasing heat, rather than remain cool. The only explanation, he decided, was that the Earth was a self-regulating system that had found a way to preserve its equilibrium: and that the organisms on Earth had kept their environment stable. He reasoned that the Earth’s atmosphere was a continually changing balance of gases because of its living and breathing inhabitants, while the Martian atmosphere was static.

The regulatory mechanism began when the earliest life-forms in the ancient oceans extracted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and released oxygen back into it. Over vast spans of geological time, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere declined to the present composition to favour the oxygen-dependent organisms. Lovelock and Margulis argued that the biosphere of planet Earth could be considered a self-evolving and self-regulating system that unconsciously and subtly manipulated atmosphere, water and rocks to its own advantage.

When he was developing his theory, Lovelock described his ideas to his then friend and neighbour in the Wiltshire village of Bowerchalke, the novelist William Golding, and asked his advice on a suitable name. Golding suggested Gaia, after the Greek goddess who drew the living world forth from Chaos.

As an illustration of the Gaia theory, Lovelock invented the Daisyworld model of coevolution. Daisyworld involved a field of black and white daisies. If the temperature rose, the black flowers absorbed more heat than the white ones, and withered. The white daisies proliferated. Eventually, the white daisies reflected more heat back into space, cooling the planet down again and allowed the black daisies to re-emerge.

Although Gaia exerted a great influence on the green movement, Lovelock had, by his own admission, “never been wholly on the side of environmentalism”. He acted as a consultant to corporate groups such as Hewlett-Packard and Shell, and in Homage to Gaia wrote: “Too many greens are not just ignorant of science, they hate science.” He likened them to “some global over-anxious mother figure who is so concerned about small risks that she ignores the real dangers”. He wished they “would grow up” and focus on the real problem: “How can we feed, house and clothe the abundant human race without destroying the habitats of other creatures?”

Unlike most environmentalists, Lovelock favoured nuclear energy. “Some time in the next century, when the adverse effects of climate change begin to bite, people will look back in anger at those who now so foolishly continue to pollute by burning fossil fuel instead of accepting the beneficence of nuclear power. Is our distrust of nuclear power and genetically modified food soundly based?” he asked.

He filed more than 40 patents, and wrote more than 200 scientific papers, as well as several books on the Gaia theory. He was awarded scientific medals, and showered with international prizes and honorary doctorates by British and other universities.

From his first book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979), to his last, published when he was 99, Lovelock wrote elegantly and persuasively. He remained an optimist. In Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence (2019), he delivered what he called “a shout of joy” for the colossal expansion of human knowledge during his lifetime, and hoped for the potential salvation of humanity by a new generation of artificially intelligent cyborgs that would – unlike many of his fellow humans – understand the importance of other living things in maintaining a habitable planet.

In 1977, Lovelock and his wife Helen – already ill with multiple sclerosis – moved from Bowerchalke to Coombe Mill, near the Devon/Cornwall border, which grew into a 35-acre woodland experimental farm. In later years he lived in Abbotsbury, near the Dorset coast.

Helen (nee Hyslop), whom he had married in 1942, died in 1989. His second wife, Sandy (nee Orchard), whom he married in 1991, survives him, along with two sons, Andrew and John, and two daughters, Jane and Christine, from his first marriage.

The climate disaster is here, with temperatures soaring across Europe, the US and much of the northern hemisphere – and scorching summers becoming the norm. As scientific predictions become reality, the emergency is becoming palpable, indisputable and widespread, with dramatic weather events reported with an ever-increasing frequency. Such patterns have disastrous, far-reaching effects –for the natural world, global food supplies, health, infrastructure and more. 

UN chief António Guterres has likened the crisis to ''collective suicide". The Guardian is one group of people who are trying to avert such a scenario, with daily reporting on the emergency. We are calling on you to support us, to ensure that even more people are made aware of the dangers — and opportunities — of this moment.

Our editorial independence means we are free to write and publish journalism which prioritises the crisis. We can highlight the climate policy successes and failings of those who lead us in these challenging times. We have no shareholders and no billionaire owner, just the determination and passion to deliver high-impact global reporting, free from commercial or political influence.

And we provide all this for free, for everyone to read. We do this because we believe in information equality. Greater numbers of people can keep track of the global events shaping our world, understand their impact on people and communities, and become inspired to take meaningful action. Millions can benefit from open access to quality, truthful news, regardless of their ability to pay for it. 

Saturday, July 16, 2022

3598. Rosa Luxemburg and Political Economy

By Ernest Mandel, International Institute for Research and Education, 1978

1. The Introduction to Political Economyi was the product of Rosa Luxemburg’s activity as a professor at the central school of the German Social Democratic Party in Berlin.ii This school was opened on 15 November 1906 and received some fifty students per semester. From 1 October 1907 on, it counted Luxemburg among its teachers. She replaced Hilferding and Pannekoek, who had been banned from teaching politics by the Prussian police; they taught political economy and economic history. From 1911 on, she also gave a course on the history of socialism, replacing Franz Mehring.iii

The idea of having these lectures published came to her, it seems, in 1908. But, in the meantime, the subject that would allow Luxemburg to make her personal contribution to the history of Marxist economic theory – the problem of imperialism, or, as Luxemburg titled it The Accumulation of Capital – increasingly absorbed her materially and intellectually.

The Accumulation of Capitawas published in 1913, and it was probably only after completing her magnum opus that Luxemburg resumed writing her Introduction to Political Economy. Interrupted once again, now by the outbreak of war, she continued to work on the Introduction during her stay in prison in Wronke, in the German province of Posen, in 1916-17.

Paul Levi, who was executor of her last will, wanted to publish her complete works, but The Introduction was published as a separate work. No doubt he thought it was not a finished book. This is what he wrote in the preface to the German edition of 1925:


These pages of Rosa Luxemburg are the product of the lectures she gave at the Social Democratic Party school. They are manuscripts, but the style often betrays the fact that it is a written speech. Neither is the book complete. In particular, it lacks the theoretical parts on value, surplus value, profit, etc. – in effect, what is set out in Karl Marx’s Capital on the function of the capitalist system. The state of the posthumous manuscript does not make it possible to grasp the reasons for these gaps. Was it the abrupt end of her life that prevented Luxemburg from completing what she had undertaken? Was it because the bandits, guardians of ‘order’, who had broken into her house, stole among other things the missing parts of the manuscript? In any case, the posthumous manuscript offers certain clues that the text, as it stands today, cannot be considered complete.iv


However, Paul Frölich, one of Luxemburg’s main disciples, is more precise than Paul Levi. In his biography of Luxemburg he writes:


From a letter written by Rosa Luxemburg on 28 July 1916, from the women’s military prison (Barnimstrasse) in Berlin to the party publisher, I.H.W. Dietz, we know the general plan of the whole work, which was to have included the following chapters:
1. What is Economics?
2. Social Labour (Die gesellschaftliche Arbeit).
3.Economic-Historical Perspectives: Primitive Communist Society.
4. Economic-Historical Perspectives: Feudal Economic System.
5. Economic-Historical Perspectives: Medieval Town and the Craft Guild.
6. Commodity Production
7. Wage-labour.
8. The Profit of Capital
9. The Crisis.
10. The Tendencies of Capitalist Development.
In the summer of 1916 the first two chapters were ready for printing, and all the other chapters already in draft. However, only chapters 1, 3, 6, 7, and 10 could be found among her literary remains These were published in 1925 by Paul Levi, unfortunately with many errors, arbitrary alterations and the omission of important notes.v

It must be stressed, however, that if, as Paul Levi asserts, the problems of value and surplus value are not dealt with systematically in the chapters that we have now, these problems are satisfactorily clarified in the chapters on commodity production and on wages.

2. Little is known about a subject that deserves more attention from all those who care about the history of Marxism, of socialism or, in general that of the workers’ movement and social struggles between 1880 and 1914: namely, the way in which Marxism was welcomed, understood and assimilated by those who, at the time, called themselves Marxists. Today, it is clear that the inexorable progress of Marx’s ideas within the international labour movement, warmly celebrated by Engels towards the end of his life, was more apparent than real. Outside Germany, distribution of Capital was As for the German version, while the seventh edition of volume I was almost exhausted shortly before Engels’ death, volumes II and III were distributed in 1914 in only a few thousand copies. It is certainly no exaggeration to say that Marx’s masterpiece has been read more in then ten years between 1960 and 1970 than in the first half-century after it was written.

To the difficulties of diffusion of Capital – due both to the hostility of academic science and to the fact that the level of cultural development of the working class was still too low to grasp this challenging work – is added the slowness of publication of Marx’s other economic works. The Theories of Surplus Value were not available until between 1904 and 1910. As for the 1844 Manuscripts and the Grundrisse, Luxemburg was not even able to read them: they were published long after her assassination. Even today, hundreds of pages of Marx’s economic works have not yet appeared.

It was mainly ‘popularizers’ who had to satisfy the socialist workers’ thirst for knowledge. Among them, undoubtedly Karl Kautsky occupies the first place. His pamphlet Karl Marx’s Economic Doctrine (Karl Marxens Ökonomische Lehre) had fourteen editions in German until 1912, and numerous editions in various other European languages.vii It was from this veritable manual that two successive generations of socialists drew the bulk of their Marxist economic knowledge.

Compared to Luxemburg’s Introduction, Kautsky’s brochure is strikingly schematic and simplifying. As a dedicated disciple, Kautsky is content to summarize Marx’s doctrine in ‘more easily understandable’ language, sacrificing in part the dialectical richness of a thinking that is at once extremely nuanced and capable of the most daring generalizations. From this masterful synthesis of the abstract and the concrete, Kautsky draws only a sequence of syllogisms.

Certainly, in the face of the assaults of the revisionists, who put forward the thesis of the progressive attenuation of the economic and social contradictions of capitalism,viii Kautsky defended orthodoxy, and Luxemburg and Lenin would refer to him for a decade. But, apart from a few glimmers of genius,ix his routine orthodoxy barely covers the fundamental weakness which was to come to the surface from 1910 onwards, and of which the full extent would appear at the outbreak of World War I. This weakness is the following. For the materialist conception of history that sees in class struggle the motor of the historical process, and which conceives of social revolution as the outcome of the conflict between the productive forces and the relations of production, Kautsky substituted an increasingly fatalistic economic determinism, in which ‘economic necessities’ ended up condemning to failure the revolutionary struggles of the proletariat.x

After the dryness of Kautsky, Luxemburg’s Introduction to Political Economy comes as a bath of freshness. Returning to Marx’s method rather than summarizing Capital, she makes us realize the interconnectedness of history and economic theory, of the concrete and the abstract. Luxemburg has a similar capacity to that of Marx for analysis and generalization that avoids the traps of schematism and of falling into banal empiricism. It is enough to compare Kautsky’s pamphlet – one of his most valuable works – with Luxemburg’s book, to grasp the differences in temperament, imagination, sensitivity, and capacity for theoretical synthesis between the two.

Was Luxemburg the first to modify the teaching of Marxist economic theory as practised over two decades by the school of Kautsky? Much research will be needed to answer this question. In Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United States, Italy and France, it seems that it was the tradition inaugurated by Kautskyxi that triumphed and caused havoc in the conception of Marxism, even in the early days of the Communist International. As far as Russian Social Democracy is concerned, on the other hand, there are many indications that here this was not the case. We know, for example, that at the famous Capri School of Russian Social Democracy, Bogdanov took a course in political economy in 1908-09, and, according to what our late friend Roman Rosdolsky told us, this course had many methodological similarities with that of Luxemburg. Is this a coincidence or a mutual influence? Did Bogdanov draw inspiration from Luxemburg? Was Luxemburg influenced by Bogdanov? Are there models of earlier presentations from which these two introductions derived? Today these questions cannot be answered.

3. Some passages in The Introduction to Political Economy have been criticized, some wrongly, some rightly. The entire first part of the book attempts to answer the question: ‘What is political economy?’ The answer to this question, which limits the application of this science to the capitalist mode of production (more precisely, to all societies that know commodity production) seemed to some, including Lenin, to excessively limit the field of this science.

To us it seems certain, however, that the problems traditionally associated with the study of economic phenomena are commensurate with commodity production.xii Without it, there are no problems of exchange value, circulation of money, equivalences, capital or capital accumulation, conjectural fluctuations, terms of exchange or balance of payments: all these problems arise from the doubling of commodities as both use values and exchange values, a doubling which is the result of their particular social nature. From the moment on when the products of labour are no longer anything more than use values, and the equilibrium to be established (or re-established) is only of a physical nature (diet; physical planning of the territory; economy of raw materials, etc.), political economy seems to dissolve into other scientific disciplines: the science of organization, that of communications, cybernetics, preventive medicine, food physiology, polytechnic disciplines, etc.

Marx and Engels, although also restricting the application of political economy and its critique as they had conceived it, to the domain of commodity production (the subject of Capital is obviously the commodity and the capitalist mode of production, and not ‘economic phenomena in general’, as something apart from the specific mode of production in which they appear), add that the economy of labour time is and will remain the foundation of every human society.xiii This gives rise to a certain ambiguity. Since the law of value is only ‘the particular form’ in which under the regime of commodity production the more general equilibrium of working time operates, could we then not deduce the ‘laws of political economy’ from their particular form specific to the capitalist mode of production to a more general form applicable to all human societies?

We know that Marx himself vigorously opposed this hypothesis.xiv The ambiguity is based on a confusion. Indeed, as Luxemburg rightly points out, the very necessity of economic science arises from the opacity of economic phenomena in a regime of commodity production. The nature of exchange value does not automatically emerge from a price list; the nature of surplus value does not automatically emerge from reading a worker’s payslip; the explanation of cyclical crises does not immediately emerge from seeing fluctuations in stock market share prices (or in industrial production indices) – to discover the secrets of these phenomena a scientific discipline is gradually organized.

As soon as the phenomena of commodity production make way for the conscious organization of economic life, based on the satisfaction of needs, there are no longer any particular ‘economic mysteries’ to be solved. The only ‘laws’ that could be discovered are banalities or tautologies along the lines of: ‘Humanity can never consume more than it has at its disposal’ (consumption can never exceed the sum of current production and stocks); ‘without maintaining or increasing the stock of machines, production and consumption will eventually decrease’; ‘if all current production is consumed, the stock of machines cannot be increased’, etc. As soon as one tries to convert these banalities into formulas based on labour expenditure, one comes up against insurmountable difficulties; or more precisely, one is tempted to let oneself slide imperceptibly backwards, towards ‘laws’ inspired by commodity production.

Thus, there is no necessary proportionality between the rate of growth of the social product and its distribution, between funds of consumption and funds of accumulation; a communist society of abundance may indeed have considerable reserves of productivity (because of scientific knowledge that is currently not applied to production, because an additional investment effort was deliberately avoided) which mean that even a slight increase in the overall working time devoted to the manufacture of machines and factories can increase the mass of consumer goods much more strongly. And, since we are no longer calculating in value terms, the aim is obviously not to ‘restore’ some kind of ‘balance’ in labour expenditure in each branch, but simply to achieve, at the lowest overall labour costs, a desired assortment of physical masses of products.

If Luxemburg is right against her critics in her definition of the object of political economy, she is wrong in her elaboration of Marxist wage theory. Or, more precisely, she makes excessive concessions to the thesis of absolute impoverishment, attributed to Marx by his bourgeois and revisionist critics – a theory which the founder of scientific socialism never defended in this form.

Let us be clear: Luxemburg remains within well-established Marxist orthodoxy, and resolutely rejects Lassalle’s ‘iron law of salaries’, a theory of Malthusian and Ricardian inspiration. With Marx, Luxemburg stresses that it is the accumulation of capital and not demographic movement that periodically grows and shrinks the industrial reserve army. With Marx, she distinguishes two parts in the value of labour-power: one part that must satisfy purely physiological needs, and one part that corresponds to the historically acquired needs of the working class, needs that depend as much on national historical peculiarities as on the level of material civilization achieved in a given country and on the organized strength of the working class.

Luxemburg even insists, and rightly so, that it is only thanks to the trade union and socialist organization of the workers, and thanks to their class struggle, that labour power is sold at its value (and not below its value), and that a series of cultural needs are definitively integrated into the minimum standard of living that the wage is supposed to satisfy. She sees this as ‘the great economic significance of Social Democracy’ (of the labour movement). And, together with Marx, Luxemburg particularly insists on the importance of the relative share of the newly produced value that goes to the producers. The tendential reduction of this share, the relative impoverishment of the proletariat, is rightly conceived as a historical law that can be abolished only by the abolition of the capitalist regime – whereas under this regime effective trade union organization can, under certain historical conditions, succeed in halting the downward trend of real wages.

But Luxemburg is wrong when she says that ‘ the real wage has the constant tendency to fall to the absolute minimum, the minimum of physical existence, in other words there is a constant tendency on the part of capital to pay for labor-power below its value. Only workers’ organization provides a counterweight to this tendency of capital’xv In this absolute and unqualified form, the formula is inaccurate.

It could be debated whether such a trend would exist in a hypothetical, abstract globally homogeneous capitalist society. But in the real world, dominated by huge differences in productivity and level of industrialization between various capitalist nations, the tendency mentioned by Luxemburg does not exist. She implies a global levelling of wages in the period before the emergence of powerful trade union organizations (or, which amounts to the same thing, an international levelling of the industrial reserve army, with more or less equivalent difficulties for the organization of workers, confronted by an equivalent mass of unemployed). The reality, highlighted by Marx, is obviously that there are large wage differentials between different capitalist countries, and that in general, if the level of productivity of a capitalist nation is on average higher than that of its neighbours, the level of wages will also tend to be higher.

This is not because the level of wages is a function of the level of industrial productivity, as bourgeois economists claim. We need to consider the fluctuations of the industrial reserve army to understand this correlation. In ‘empty’, underpopulated countries with large reserves of unoccupied land, high productivity is neither cause nor consequence of high wages. Such wages are rather a function of an acute labour shortage. In the countries that industrialized first, higher wages are a function of the fact that such countries export a significant part of their industrial production. This means that jobs lost through capital accumulation are mostly lost abroad, while at home jobs are newly created. It is only in capitalist countries which are only beginning to industrialize that we can, therefore, speak of a tendency of capital to push the wage down to the physiological minimum, because the industrial reserve army there tends to be large and permanent. For the same reason, in such countries, organization of workers in trade unions faces major difficulties.

4. The entire Introduction to Political Economy can be summarized in three Hegelian triads: the primitive production of use values leads to market production, which will reproduce production for needs, but incorporating the colossal expansion of humanity’s needs and potentialities made possible by market production; the organization of production in primitive communities leads to the anarchy of capitalist production, which will lead to the socialist planning of tomorrow, infinitely more complex and varied than the organization of yesteryear; primitive collective property leads to generalized private property under capitalism, which leads to the collective property of tomorrow (collective property which will however differ from primitive collective property by the fact that this collectivity will no longer be a small group bound by blood, a horde, a clan or a tribe, but a very large collectivity, a nation, a continent, even the whole of humanity).

The order of these three triads is obvious. It is the development of commodity production within the primitive community that disintegrates it, accentuates social differentiation, and brings forth the private appropriation of the social surplus product and the means of production. On the other hand, it is the decline of private property – the result of capitalist competition itself – and the advancing objective socialization of production under this same capitalism, which makes it ripe to be replaced by a socialism. But this sequence is not gradual, evolutionary and unavoidable. It proceeds through crises and violent explosions, in which the actions of social classes play a decisive role. Primitive communities do not automatically fall apart. Their destruction is most often carried out through the iron and fire of conquerors, and this path is traced not only in the blood of victims but also in that of resistance fighters. Luxemburg’s references to the extermination of the American Indians by the Spaniards, to the barbarity of the enslavement of black people, to the colossal price that colonialism has imposed on the human race, sound strikingly modern. Here as well, a wide gulf separates The Introduction, conceived in 1908, from Kautsky’s commentary of 1886, from which the ‘Third World’ (two-thirds of humanity) is virtually absent.

In the same way, the contradictions of generalized commodity production, that is to say of capitalism, are not described as automatically leading to its collapse, but necessarily provoking the reaction of the exploited, of the proletarians; it is their class struggle that can substitute a socialist society for capitalist society.

Most of the book is devoted to explaining the fundamental differences between an economy based on the production of use values, intended to satisfy the needs of producers, and an economy based on the production of commodities. Luxemburg attempts to present the different logics of these two economic systems. In the first, planning, meaning the conscious organization of work, prevails; on the second, competition, meaning the absence of planned organization, chaos is the inevitable result. The transitional forms from one to the other are dissected with great care, especially the transition from mutual aid to the free labour provided by one part of society for the exclusive benefit of another.xvi

Readers who compare these analyses with the evolution of capitalism since the beginning of the 20th century will wonder whether Luxemburg weakened her demonstration by forgetting to mention the rise of ‘organized capitalism’, of monopoly capitalism. She could have maintained the integral parallelism of the exposition: just as in an economy based on the production of use values elements of the future generalized commodity production already begin to blossom, so the first elements of the future planned economy, based on the satisfaction of the needs of all, begin to develop within the generalized commodity production that is capitalism. And just as commodity production was only able to develop fully and manifest all its possibilities by rejecting the old skin of the village community, so tomorrow’s economy of abundance can only be fully realized by emerging from the cocoon in which capitalist commodity production – production for profit and not for the satisfaction of needs – is holding it prisoner.

The empirical data on the rise of trusts, cartels and financial capital available to Luxemburg were already abundant in 1908. Hilferding’s Financial Capital appeared a year after Luxemburg began writing The Introduction, at Christmas 1909, and is based on an extensive bibliography. The theoretical publications of international Social Democracy, notably the Neue Zeit, contain numerous references to the movement of capital concentration.xvii Moreover, did Luxemburg herself not emphasize this phenomenon in her polemics with Eduard Bernstein and Konrad Schmidt in 1899?xviii Why is this movement not described in the Introduction?

It is possible that the part of the manuscript which, according to Paul Levi, was lost, did contain work in this regard. But one fact is striking. In The Accumulation of Capital, the phenomena of trusts, cartels and holding companies, and the analysis of the elements of ‘organization’ that this introduces into the anarchy of capitalism – an idea that plays such an important role in Lenin’s work, for example throughout Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism – does not occupy an important place; it is hardly mentioned. It is therefore likely that at least from a theoretical point of view, this phenomenon was of little concern to Luxemburg in the period 1908-14.

There are two main reasons for this lack of interest. First, what interests Luxemburg (and this will be the Leitmotif of The Accumulation of Capital) is the functioning of capitalism as a whole, that is, the specific characteristics of the capitalist mode of production that distinguish it from all previous modes of production. Generalization of market production; universal competition and anarchy of production; equalization of the rate of profit which distributes capital among various industrial branches so as to re-establish the equilibrium of the division of labour; increasingly intensified exploitation (at least from the relative point of view) of Labour by Capital thanks to the pressure of the industrial reserve army; inevitable crises of overproduction: this is how Luxemburg herself summarizes this functioning at the beginning of the last chapter of this book. The question she is interested in is how capitalism can function despite the anarchy of production. This question is the fundament of the whole Introduction to Political Economy. In the context of this question, the problem of whether competition pits a few thousand large or medium-sized industrialists against each other, or whether it pits only a few almighty trusts against each other, seems to be of secondary importance. Like Marx, Luxemburg sees competition as an essential condition for the existence of capitalism; but the forms of this competition, and the magnitude of the forces it brings into play, do not change the substance of the reasoning.

However, the question: ‘How can capitalism work?’ logically raises another one: ‘What are the absolute barriers to the functioning of capitalism?’ We encounter this question at the conclusion of this text and it is the subject of The Accumulation of Capital. However, we know that in order to answer it, Luxemburg resorted to a conceptual simplification which is undoubtedly at the source of the errors of analysis contained in The Accumulation of Capital: the concept of the capitalist class forming a whole, the concept of capitalism reduced to a single capital.xix Here we have the second reason for Luxemburg’s lack of interest in the phenomenon of the formation of capitalist monopolies.

From the moment that one thinks about the ‘big picture’, about the macroeconomic data of aggregate labour income and aggregate capital income, the question of how capital income is distributed among the different fractions of the bourgeois class once again appears to be of secondary importance. The question of whether the degree of concentration of capital modifies the distribution of income is not even raised, because, in Marxist theory, this modification operates at the expense of the non-monopolized sectors of the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, rather than at the expense of the working class (it is only indirectly that the formation of monopolies can reduce the share of Labour in the distribution of income, through a modification of the ‘relationship of forces between the combatants’ in favour of Capital).

In the field of production, competition is the law of capitalism; in the field of income distribution (realization of surplus value, capital accumulation), the problem of concentration does not arise. This is Luxemburg's theoretical approach, which seems to lead her to neglect the phenomenon of monopolies.

The superiority of Hilferding’s analysis and of that of Lenin which complements it, is obvious. And here a methodological remark is in order. The strength of The Introduction is precisely the masterly way in which Luxemburg, following the example of Marx, distinguishes the evolution of the structures from their revolution, from their overthrow. History is understandable only as a combination of these two movements. Social revolutions are inconceivable without the prior undermining work of evolution.xx But the minute analyses that Luxemburg applies to primitive and feudal society, the transformations she describes in the village community, the successive stages of the decomposition of the collective ownership of the land she distinguishes – all this analytical finesse suddenly disappears when it comes to describing the evolution of capitalism. Here, there seems to be room only for immutable contradictions. The effort to adapt for self-preservation, if not denied, is not even considered in the analysis of fundamental evolutionary tendencies, of the laws of development.

Basically, there is here only one essential movement, that of the destruction of the non-capitalist sectors of the economy (crafts and small and medium peasantry in the industrialized countries; all the indigenous productive sectors in the non-industrialized countries). When this movement is complete, the machine must stop. That the movement itself transforms the machine; that monopoly capitalism functions partially in a different way from free competition capitalism – while maintaining the essential features of the latter and of capitalism in generalxxi – this is what Luxemburg does not seem to admit.

Bernstein and the revisionists had proclaimed that capitalism’s ability to adapt meant its capacity to resolve its fundamental contradictions. Luxemburg replies: capitalism is incapable of resolving its fundamental contradictions, so it cannot adapt.xxii The more correct reply to the revisionists would be to say that in order to survive, capitalism constantly adapts itself to the progress of technology and to the fluctuations of the class struggle, but in doing so it does not resolve its fundamental contradictions and even creates new ones. This is the Lenin reply had given it in his pamphlet on Imperialism. In the current phase of the evolution of capitalism we see a similar process.

But even when in error, Luxemburg’s intellectual power and revolutionary spirit stand out from the mediocrity of so many ‘orthodox’ who do not stray from the correct path. For what is the attempt to abstract, if not an effort to grasp the historical movement from a long distance rather than allowing oneself to be fascinated by conjunctural movements?

The great debate with the revisionists had brought Luxemburg to the conclusion that too much attention to short-term fluctuations ran the risk of distracting from the great conflagrations that lay ahead. Imperialist wars and revolutions – those two social cataclysms that made economists, even ‘Marxists’, only shrug their shoulders at the end of the last century, as if they were now only nightmares that ‘economic evolution’ had driven out of the realm of the possible – remained at the centre of her concerns. She foreshadows this in her description of the increasingly acute inter-imperialist conflicts, the growing weight of militarism, which lead to The Accumulation of Capital. Luxemburg did not see all the paths leading to the summit, but she did discern the peaks while they remained hidden in the clouds for the great majority of socialists of her time.

We said that the question ‘How can capitalism work?’ leads to another one: ‘What are the absolute barriers to the functioning of capitalism?’ The last part of the book is devoted to answering this question. We find there summarized the thesis that Luxemburg would develop in The Accumulation of Capital: capitalism arrives at its ultimate development when it has suppressed all non-capitalist milieux, both within Western nations and across the surface of the globe, by integrating into the capitalist mode of production all the producers of colonial and semi-colonial countries. On the one hand this extends the wealth of capital, and on the other hand it increases the misery of the popular masses, on a world scale. Thus the contradiction between the innate expansionist tendency of capital and the possibility of the effective expansion of the capitalist market is deepened. The closer we get to the moment when the whole world is industrialized under capitalist conditions, the more capitalist expansion slows down. When the whole of humanity is divided into capitalists and wage workers, capitalism can no longer function.

In other words: no capitalist expansion without a non-capitalist milieu. If in The Introduction the demonstration of this thesis is held at the level of a few vague formulas,xxiii in The Accumulation of Capital Luxemburg will seek to prove it by trying to demonstrate that the complete realization of surplus-value produced is impossible without a non-capitalist milieu, and that, without this milieu, there will always be in the capitalist regime a residue of unsaleable consumer goods.

We do not intend to summarize here all the controversy opened by this thesis. In our opinion, Luxemburg is mistaken when she asserts, on the basis of Marx’s reproduction schemes, that in the context of expanded reproduction there is necessarily an unsaleable remnant of consumer goods. The function of the patterns of reproduction is not to analyse the laws of development of capitalism, nor to underline the contradictions of the system. They must demonstrate why and how the equilibrium of capitalist production can be established periodically, despite the anarchy of capitalist production. They are part of the problem of ‘capital as a whole’, while crises and conjunctural movements are part of the problem of ‘multiple capitals’, i.e., competition, whose patterns are precisely disregarded. The reality of the world of capitalist production is the unity of these two problems. This is what Luxemburg lost sight of, partly because she had not had the opportunity to study systematically the variations in Marx’s plan for the different volumes of Capital.xxiv

But if the thesis of the impossibility of realizing all surplus value in expanded reproduction, without the intervention of non-capitalist buyers, is indefensible from a theoretical point of view, it is on the other hand evident that such buyers have played and still play an essential role in explaining the concrete historical expansion through which the capitalist mode of production has passed from 1750 to the present day. In other words: what Luxemburg has provided is not a Marxist theory of crises, nor a Marxist theory of the internal limits of the capitalist mode of production, but a theory of capitalist growth.

When she asserts that without exchanges with a non-capitalist milieu, the pace of capitalist expansion would slow down, she reveals one aspect of such a general Marxist theory of economic growth in the capitalist mode of production. Paradoxically, Lenin too, in his analysis, parallel to that of Luxemburg, highlights one of the aspects of this expansion: the transfer of the colonial surplus-profits. In our work, we have insisted for several years that these two hypotheses reveal two particular aspects of a much more general phenomenon: capitalist growth presupposes differences in rates of profit, that is, different levels of productivity and different rates of surplus-value in different sectors of the economy. Whether these sectors are continents, countries, regions or branches of activity (agriculture, different industrial branches, etc.) is irrelevant. The important thing is that there is a difference. Without this difference, there would really be a tendency for the capitalist mode of production to experience a declining rate of growth and to move towards secular stagnation.

But the very nature of capitalist competition makes the full equalization of the rate of profit and productivity between all sectors a utopia. The same fundamental force, namely competition (competition between capitalists as well as competition between Capital and Labour), which pushes the trend towards the equalization of the rate of profit, also pushes towards the suppression of this equality of the rate of profit between various branches (regions, countries). Capitalist investments, the accumulation of capital under the whip of competition, systematically seek the possibilities of obtaining surplus-profits. It is this search that ultimately drives economic growth under capitalism. Lenin and Luxemburg rightly emphasized the exploitation of the colonies (and agriculture) as sources of surplus-profits for capitalist monopolies. But technological innovation (the exploitation of a technological advance), the presence of a reserve of labour, a sudden fall in the organic composition of capital, a sudden rise in the rate of surplus value (as a result of wars, the destruction of trade unions, etc.) can all be equivalent sources of surplus-profits.

In itself, asking the question is a great step forward. It is to Luxemburg’s credit, and a sign of originality, that she did not content herself with the general formulas on the contradictions inherent in the capitalist mode of production that Kautsky had copied from Marx, but sought to ask questions where Kautsky and his school saw only answers. How do these contradictions manifest themselves in the long run, if the capitalist regime persists for a few more decades? What is the structure of the international capitalist system that replaces in real life the methodologically necessary abstraction, used by Marx, of a ‘pure’ capitalist system? How has the growth of the capitalist mode of production actually taken place?

That the answers she gave to these questions were insufficient and partly wrong is, in the final analysis, less important than the fact that she understood that there were indeed questions there, to which Marx himself had not given answers. It took genius to ask these questions, within the framework of the Marxist problematic. No Marxist can deny that Rosa Luxemburg had genius.


i [Originally published as the preface to Rosa Luxemburg, Introduction à l’economie politique (Paris, 1970). The original text refers to ‘Rosa’ - to make naming convention consistent with those of others, this has been changed to ‘Luxemburg’. Translation by Alex de Jong].

ii The ‘Introduction to Political Economy’ is published in: Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Volume I, Economic Writings 1 (London, 2014), pp. 89-301.

iii J. P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (London, 1966) Vol.1, pp. 389-392.

iv Paul Levi, introduction to Einführung in die Nationaloekonomie (Berlin, 1925), p. V.

v Paul Fröhlich, Rosa Luxemburg: Ideas in Action (Chicago, 2010), p. 148.

vi The second volume of Capital was published first by Engels in 1885. A second edition appeared in 1893. Volume III was published by Engels in 1894.

vii The fifth German language edition appeared in 1921.

viii See, for example, Eduard Bernstein, Evolutionary Socialism: A Criticism and Affirmation (New York, 1909 [1899]).

ix For example, the conclusion to Foundations of Christianity (London, 1908), in which he raises the issue of a possible bureaucratic degeneration of the workers’ movement, and his articles in Neue Zeit on the Russian revolution of 1905 in which he foresees the international repercussions of this revolution, both as a trigger for a series of bourgeois revolutions in Asia and as a ‘detonator’ for the proletarian revolution in Europe.

x Kautsky, for example, declared that the failure of the German revolution in the aftermath of World War I was ‘inevitable’ because of the disorganization of production as a result of the war and Germany’s defeat.

xi Before World War I, Kautsky’s method of popularization and simplification was generally followed in the works of Dutch Marxists Pannekoek, Gorter, H.R. Holst and others), Belgians (De Brouckère and De Man), American, (Budin), French (Rapport, the Guesdistes), Italians and other Marxists.

xii We have discussed this issue in Marxist Economic Theory (London, 1968), pp. 664-668.

xiii See, for example, Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Notebook VII, ‘The Chapter on Capital’, online at [].

xiv See the introduction to the second French edition of volume I of Capital, in which Marx quotes with approval the May 1872 statement in the journal Viestnik Evropy (‘Herald of Europe’) that for him there are no abstract economic laws, applicable to past and present.

xv See section 5.6 of ‘Introduction to Political Economy’.

xvi We have tried to examine the same phenomenon in Marxist Economic Theory, pp. 57-59.

xvii See the journal Neue Zeit in the period 1900-19191, notably the articles on the organization of trusts in the United States, and on industry and electricity in Germany.

xviii Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution (London, 1986), chapter III, online at [ ].

xix On the other hand, Marx makes it explicit that capitalism is only conceivable as ‘multiple capitals’, that is to say, taking into account competition. See Le Capital, Vol. II, p. 16. (Paris 1928). It is only within the framework of competition that the laws of development of capitalism can be discerned.

xx Kautsky develops this same idea, although in a rather mechanistic way, in his commentary on the Erfurt programme, Das Erfurter Programm (Stuttgart, 1908) pp. 10-110.

xxi In his draft programme for the eighth congress of the RCP (B), Lenin precedes the description of imperialism with that of capitalism, contained in the old Party programme, and introduces this passage: ‘The nature of capitalism and of the bourgeois society which still dominates in most civilized countries and the development of which it inevitably leads, and has been leading, to the world communist revolution of the proletariat was described in our old Marxist programme in the following terms’. Lenin, Collected Works (London, 1977) Vol.29, p. 100.

xxii See again chapter III of Reform or Revolution.

xxiii In her preface to the French edition of The Accumulation of Capital, Rosa Luxemburg wrote:; ‘When, last January, after the Reichstag elections [of 1912], I was preparing to complete, at least in broad outline, this work of popularizing Marx’s economic theories, I suddenly encountered an unexpected difficulty. I had not succeeded in presenting with sufficient clarity the process of capitalist production in its concrete relations as well as with its objective historical limit.’ It was then that she decided to write The Accumulation of Capital.

xxiv This question has been carefully studied by Roman Rosdolskv, Zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Marxschen ‘Kapital’ (Frankfurt, 1968), volume pp. 24-78.